Why won't Americans study anyone else?

Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh used to be a student in the United States. And, if the events since last November have demonstrated anything, it is that he and other leaders of Iran's revolutionary government understand Americans better than we understand Iranians.

This is partly because more Iranians have seriously studied America -- and how to deal with Americans -- than Americans have studied Iran and how to deal with Iranians.

Most American college students, indeed, study no history, politics, culture, or language of any nation other than their own.

Why?

The reasons are many. We have a distinct insularity born of our historic physical distance from other peoples and cultures -- the consequence of the geopolitical fact of our being bordered to the east and west by the world's two biggest oceans. And, when we did finally joined the world as a full-fledged nation-member after World War II, we naively expected to be met on our own terms by this globe's other peoples.

In short, we have never, in our 200-year history, really recognized the necessity of studying other peoples.

This is why a smaller percentage of our students today study foreign languages -- in high school or college -- than at the turn of the century. Incredible -- after World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iran -- but true.

There will be other, probably bigger crises in the future -- involving possibly China, Egypt, India, Brazil, Nigeria, or Yugoslavia -- but there is little reason to believe that America (and Americans) will be any more able to cope with them than with the present Iranian problem.

Because we are making unbelievably minimal efforts to improve our understanding of other peoples.

Why?

In major measure, because most of our academic leaders and college faculty members -- from university presidents to assistant professors -- have had only a very limited international education themselves. And because "there are more important things to study," as one colleague recently told me, in the eyes of only too many teachers -- college or otherwise.

Ironically, at almost the same time as the Iranian hostage crisis broke upon the American (international) scene, a major report was being presented to President Carter. Chairman of the committee that made the report was James A. Perkins, distinguished former president of Cornell University and chairman of the International Council for Educational Development.

The Perkins committee, appointed by President Carter, was created to review the state of foreign language and other international studies in the United States -- from kindergarten through graduate school. It recommended, among other things:

(1) Reinstatement of pre-college and university language requirements.

(2) Expanded international education programs at all colleges and universities.

(3) Incorporation of an international education requirement in the certification of all school teachers as well as major international curriculum development in kindergarten through high school.

(4) The requirement of two to three courses in international studies for all college students (in addition to language instruction).

(5) The funding, by the federal Department of Education, of 200 undergraduate international studies programs in American colleges and universities.

These are only some of the commission's many recommendations -- cited here to indicate the thrust of what the Perkins committee believes this nation should do.

It is half a year now since the American embassy personnel in Tehran became prisoners of Iran's revolutionaries, and it is also the same half a year since the Perkins committee made its report.

The hostages, however, are still in captivity and the Perkins committee's recommendations remain largely unimplemented -- by President Carter, Congress, state governments, universities and school boards up and down the land.

There are limitations on what the United States can do to free the hostages.

But America -- meaning the national government, states and municipalities, and universities and school boards -- can do something about the inadequate state of internationally focused education in this country.

The chief limitation, frankly, is our own inability or unwillingness to improve this important dimension of American education.

If a younger Sadegh Ghotbzadeh believed that he needed to learn more about America in order to deal with us, we no less need to know more about the rest of the world to deal with it.

The evidence, however, suggests that we have yet to learn the lesson.

If our national and state leaders (and college and pre-college educators) do not soon do so, then we will be no more able to understand future crises than present and past ones in Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, India, or Algeria.

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